TDSB alarmed by declining scores
Only 28% of school board’s Grade 9 students taking applied math met provincial standards
Alarming standardized test results for high school students in applied courses are raising questions at Canada’s largest school board about how some of its most at-risk youth are being taught.
Only 28 per cent of Grade 9 students taking applied math at the Toronto District School Board met the provincial standard in math skills in 2016-2017, according to Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) data released last week. That’s down from 32 per cent the previous year and compares with an 80-per-cent success rate for those in the academic stream.
Evidence of a growing gap — the most pronounced among the 10 GTA boards — comes on the heels of several reports that call for an end to academic streaming and argue the practice is discriminatory, sends the wrong message and limits choices down the road for kids barely in their teens.
“Absolutely, we are concerned,” said Manon Gardner, TDSB executive superintendent of teaching and learning.
“Obviously those are not the numbers we want for our students. We are looking deep into this in terms of what can we change.”
“Absolutely, we are concerned . . . We are looking deep into this, in terms of what can we change.” MANON GARDNER TDSB EXECUTIVE SUPERINTENDENT OF TEACHING AND LEARNING
One in four Grade 9 students in the Toronto board — a total of almost 4,000 kids — were enrolled in applied math last year, so the fact that almost three-quarters were below the provincial standard — of roughly aB — means a substantial number may be falling through the cracks.
Province-wide numbers for the nearly 35,000 Grade 9 kids in applied math are also dismal, with 56 per cent of them failing to meet the Ontario standard versus 83 per cent of academic students.
At Peel District School Board, the second-largest board, 39 per cent of students in applied were successful versus 84 per cent in academic classes.
The gulf is worrisome, says Mary Reid, professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).
No matter what people think of standardized testing, “this is statistically significant and we can’t ignore it,” says Reid. “These are alarming results.”
Math isn’t the only area of concern. All Grade 10 students in Ontario write a literacy test and must pass in order to graduate. But the success rate for students enrolled in applied English has declined over the past five years, with only 44 per cent passing in 2017 — versus 92 per cent of those in the academic stream. Students who fail are enrolled in a literacy course and can retake the test.
At the TDSB, 39 per cent of applied students taking the literacy test for the first time passed, versus 87 per cent of academic students.
Reid says the disparity between test results for kids in university-bound academic courses and the more hands-on applied level amount to “a real inequity” and a failure of the system because education is supposed to be “about closing the achievement gap.”
The troubling findings this month came in the wake of an announce- ment by the province that it plans to re-examine its curriculum and assessment process.
Meanwhile, the trend in applied is becoming significant enough that the EQAO chose to highlight it when releasing the first wave of data last month, said chief executive Norah Marsh.
The gap “creates a lot of questions as far as what’s happening for those students,” she said.
Tracking students through tests in Grades 3, 6 and 9 shows that putting them in separate streams can have negative consequences.
For example, kids who didn’t meet the standard in Grade 6 were more likely to be successful in Grade 9 if they took the academic course, she said.
She added that students receiving special-education supports, who made up 41 per cent of Grade 9 applied math classes, are also more successful in academic courses if they receive appropriate accommodations.
Eighty-one per cent of special-ed students in Grade 10 academic English passed the Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test, she said, versus 36 per cent of special-ed students in the applied course.
The latest EQAO results follow a series of reports raising concerns about the impact of streaming, including one from the research and advocacy group People for Education two years ago that cited a widening achievement gap and found kids in applied courses are less likely to graduate or go on to post-secondary.
Last month, the advocacy group Social Planning Toronto highlighted the lack of guidance and information families receive about streaming, which disproportionately affects racialized students and those from low-income families. And an earlier report from York University found Black youth are twice as likely to be in applied courses as other racial groups.
Rising concerns have led to a growing number of TDSB high schools starting to “de-stream” by gradually eliminating applied level courses for Grade 9 and 10 students and instead placing most in the academic stream.
Schools such as C.W. Jefferys Collegiate, the first to launch a de-streaming pilot in 2014, have seen achievement levels rise across the board when all students are supported and expected to succeed in academic courses.
Jefferys has removed all Grade 9 applied courses except math, which is next on the list. But EQAO results show progress is well underway, with 80 per cent of kids in applied math meeting the provincial standard last year, up sharply from 52 per cent in 2016 and 41 per cent the previous year.
This year Oakwood Collegiate Institute became the first high school to end all Grade 9 applied courses at once, a process generated by teachers and involving co-ordination with feeder schools to ensure students who would have been headed for applied get all the support they need, according to principal Steve Yee.
Gardner says in the past two years the TDSB has redirected about 5 per cent of students headed toward applied into academic courses instead, with up to16 high schools in different phases of de-streaming this year.
Education experts, such as Mary Reid, say eliminating streaming is the way to address the problem.
“You teach to the academic curriculum, and you get rid of labels,” Reid said, adding that research shows all students do better in mixed-ability groupings, but streaming does the most harm to those who are struggling.